The wee one is at that age when we’re reading her ABCs on a daily basis — which explains why one of her first words was “ackle” (apparently, that’s what A stands for). We have half a dozen of these, with Alison Jay’s ABC being my favorite one, thanks to her stunning illustrations. However, I wish I could get my hands on two of the more unusual ones. Like Shel Silverstein’s Adults-Only Children’s Book and The ABCs of WWI, a British Wartime Alphabet Primer: did you know that D stands for dreadnought?
Shel Silverstein’s Adults-Only Children’s Book
In 1961, Hugh Hefner, likely recognizing that his adult publication was missing out on a lucrative and untapped market, commissioned some material just for the kids. As Kevin Litman-Navarro of Atlas Obscura explains, six pages after August’s centerfold spread of Playmate Karen Thompson, Playboy Magazine printed its inaugural children’s work—Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book.
Shortly thereafter, Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book was published. Featuring much of the material from Playboy, it was the first book written by prolific author, musician, playwright and songwriter Shel Silverstein, then Playboy’s resident cartoonist. Over the past 55 years, it has become a literary cult classic, unknown by most, but fiercely adored by ardent fans along with his better-known works like his brilliant A Giraffe and a Half, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and A Light in the Attic, his 1981 collection of children’s poetry.
Silverstein’s tongue-in-cheek work purports to be an educational tool, bearing the tagline, “A Primer For Tender Young Minds.” But upon the most cursory of inspections, it becomes clear that Uncle Shelby is not to be trusted with young minds, tender or otherwise.
Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book is a brazen work of satire. Borrowing from the tradition of children’s learn-the-alphabet books, Silverstein constructs a stable of mnemonic devices to help his readers take their first steps toward literacy. Unlike most alphabet books, however, Silverstein’s associations are not intended to reinforce memory, but to prey upon the insecurities of children, suggest mischievous misdeeds, and otherwise exploit children’s innocence.
Silverstein gleefully plays the role of devil-on-the-shoulder, encouraging young readers to throw eggs at the ceiling, ask mother to purchase a gigolo, and pretend to drink lye (if you pretend to drink lye, the doctor will pump your stomach and “give you a nice red lollipop.”).
Given all of the thinly veiled adult humor throughout the book, it seems quite clear that Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book is not intended for children. But some distracted adults, it seems, neglected to actually read it before passing it to their sweet, impressionable young ones —today’s parental equivalent of giving a child unprotected internet access. One scandalized reader on the book review site Goodreads didn’t realize her mistake until she had already begun a family reading. “The truly shocking page,” she wrote, “was where he was joking about going with kidnappers and eating the lollipops they offer.”Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book is not the only work of Silverstein’s that was met with consternation from overzealous would-be book-banners. A Light in the Attic ranks 51 out of 100 on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged materials from 1990-1999 (it was also the first children’s book on the New York Times bestseller list). Some found the material offensive, citing poems that “glorified Satan, suicide, cannibalism, and also encouraged children to be disobedient.”
Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book is not the only work of Silverstein’s that was met with consternation from overzealous would-be book-banners. A Light in the Attic ranks 51 out of 100 on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged materials from 1990-1999 (it was also the first children’s book on the New York Times bestseller list). Some found the material offensive, citing poems that “glorified Satan, suicide, cannibalism, and also encouraged children to be disobedient.”
Sadly enough (?), Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book never attained enough commercial success to make any “most hated by parents” lists. But at least it gave anyone a worthy reason to read Playboy—for the (children’s) articles.
You can find out more on Atlas Obscura.
The ABCs of WWI
A stands for Austria, where the first bomb was hurled
The Bomb that was destined to startle the world.
So begins The Child’s ABC of the War, a book reintroduced to the world by Anika Burgess of Atlas Obscura. The book teaches the letters of the alphabet not through animals or objects, but through a particular British view of the world and World War I. Printed in London in 1914, it was intended for three-year-old boys. The copy shown here, from the Florida State University’s digital repository, was given as a Christmas gift, with a handwritten inscription: “with love and best wishes.”
What follows is the alphabet rendered in weapons, details of the war, and the Imperial British worldview. B is for Belgium, the “brave little state,” and C is for Colonies, “loyal and true.” For a book intended for small children, it doesn’t shy away from violence: T for Torpedo/It shoots under water/Dealer of death and disaster & slaughter.
Unsurprisingly, there was some opposition to the book when it was published. In the 1915 issue of Kindergarten Primary Magazine, the “Chairman Peace Committee” Lucy Wheelock wrote, “Picture books such as The Child’s ABC of War … foster the spirit of antagonism and revenge and are not desirable influences in child life.”
Britain produced other WWI-specific children’s books. Why Britain Went to War: To the Boys and Girls of the British Empire explains the conflict with a uniquely British analogy:
…we are standing up for honor among nations, while Germany is playing the sneak and the bully in the big European school.
Germany must be taught to play cricket, to play fair …
A boy who behaved as Germany has done would be sent to Coventry by all the school.
Even nursery rhymes were co-opted for the war. Nina MacDonald’s War Nursery Rhymes added bleak war specifics to well-known verses:
Little Miss Muffet,
Sat on a tuffet,
All on a summer’s day,
When a bomb (‘twas a dud)
Came down with a thud,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
However, it wasn’t just Britain that filled children’s books with wartime messages and propaganda. The 1915 German book Hurra! Ein Kriegs-Bilderbuch (Hurray! A War Picture-Book) tells the story, in verse, of two little boys killing the enemies of Germany and Austria-Hungary. And in France, André Hellé wrote Alphabet de la Grande Guerre (Alphabet of the Great War), “for the children of our soldiers,” which included C for Charge, T for Trench, and S for Submarine.